Guide to the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London

Centuries-old tradition happens every night

Ceremony of the Keys tower of london
General Sir Nicholas Houghton receives The Queen's Keys as he is installed as the 160th Constable of the Tower of London on Oct. 5, 2016. Jack Taylor/Getty Images

The United Kingdom is very big on tradition, and especially any tradition that has to do with the monarch. The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London, a medieval fortress built by William the Conqueror in 1066, is one such, and it dates back centuries. Essentially, it's simply locking all the doors to the Tower of London, and visitors are allowed to escort the warden as long as they apply in advance.

But it's a bit more complicated than just securing your front door at night. The Ceremony of the Keys involves the formal locking of the famous gates at the Tower of London. The Tower must be locked because it houses the Crown Jewels, and it has happened exactly the same way every night for about seven centuries.

What Happens

During the Ceremony of the Keys, the Chief Yeoman Warder is escorted around the Tower locking all the doors until he is "challenged" by the sentry, whom he must answer before completing the task. The same wording has been used every night for hundreds of years except for the name of the reigning monarch.

Visitors are admitted to the Tower under escort at precisely 9.30 p.m. Between 40 and 50 visitors are admitted to watch the Ceremony of the Keys each night. 

Every night, at exactly 9:52 p.m., the Chief Yeoman Warder of the Tower comes out of the Byward Tower, dressed in red, carrying a candle lantern in one hand and the Queen's Keys in the other.

He walks to Traitor's Gate to meet between two and four members of the duty regiment Foot Guards, who escort him throughout the ceremony. One soldier takes the lantern, and they walk in step to the outer gate. All guards and sentries on duty salute the Queen's Keys as they pass.

The Warder locks the outer gate, and they walk back to lock the oak gates of the Middle and Byward towers.

All three then return towards Traitor's Gate, where a sentry awaits them. Then this dialogue begins:

Sentry: "Halt, who comes there?"

Chief Yeoman Warder: "The keys."

Sentry: "Whose keys?"

Warder: "Queen Elizabeth's keys."

Sentry: "Pass then; all's well."

All four men walk to the Bloody Tower archway and up toward the broadwalk steps, where the main Guard is drawn up. The Chief Yeoman Warder and his escort halt at the foot of the steps, and the officer in charge gives the command to the Guard and escort to present arms.

The Chief Yeoman Warder moves two paces forward, raises his Tudor bonnet high in the air, and calls "God preserve Queen Elizabeth." The guard answers "Amen" exactly as the clock chimes 10 p.m. and "The Duty Drummer" sounds The Last Post on his bugle.

The Chief Yeoman Warder takes the keys back to the Queen's House, and the Guard is dismissed.

Before and after the ceremony, a Yeoman Warder acting as a guide provides more explanation of the Tower of London and its history. Visitors are escorted to the exit at 10:05 p.m.

How to Get Tickets

Tickets are free, but you must book online in advance. You should book these tickets as soon as you decide to go since they are booked up months in advance and often as much as a year in advance, and there is no waiting list. To apply you need to include all of the names in your party. You can book for up to six in a group between April 1 and Oct. 31 and up to 15 in a group between Nov. 1 and March 31.

Important Notes

When you go to the Ceremony of the Keys, take your original ticket issued by the Tower of London. Latecomers will not be admitted, so it is imperative that you are on time for this event. There are no toilet or refreshment facilities available, and you can't take photos of any part of the ceremony.